Compassion – yes or no? (Interview with Jonas Kaufmann & Amélie Niermeyer)

This was one of the key questions for director Amélie Niermeyer and tenor Jonas Kaufmann in conversation about the new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. A deliberation of outsiders, foreigners and a thoroughly unsettling work.

(An article from the newest issue of MAX JOSEPH)

Jonas Kaufmann takes on the main role in the new production „Otello“
Jonas Kaufmann takes on the main role in the new production „Otello“(©Tanja Kernweiss for Max Joseph / Bayerische Staatsoper)

MAX JOSEPH A key word in Verdi’s Otello is Moro, the Moor. In recent years, the practice of blacking up has become less acceptable, so how have you approached this visually and from a production standpoint? 

AMÉLIE NIERMEYER Less acceptable? That’s putting it mildly. I’m shocked that today some productions still don’t think twice about using blacked-up Otellos, despite this kind of latent racism having been called out years ago. Nowadays it’s obviously vital not to fall into this trap. But the work isn’t actually about skin colour or clothing, but rather about being an outsider. A contemporary interpretation should communicate this by means of Otello’s interaction with his environment. You don’t need black makeup or exotic robes. First and foremost he’s an expert and complete nerd in the field of battle strategy. Setting aside skin colour, we see his returning from war, having experienced terrible things, as the sole reason for his difficulties reintegrating into society.

JONAS KAUFMANN Of course, in this age of political correctness, the question of whether Aida or Otello should black up still sparks more debate than ever. Before my first performances as Otello in London last year I was asked about it constantly. But it helps to know that, in England, the term ‘moorish people’ was used for a long time to refer not only to blacks, but to all non-natives irrespective of origin and skin colour. They were simply the foreigners. However, in the German-speaking world, ‘moorish’ was used for many years specifically to describe blacks. An example of this would be in The Magic Flute: “The evil blackamoor demanded love”.

AN Which doesn’t make our job any easier with regard to Otello. It exploits the cliché of the foreigner as a savage who can’t control his emotions – jealous, prone to violent outbursts and whose envy leads him to commit murder.

JK But his roots aren’t completely irrelevant. Because he originates from Arabia, he carries with him the mystique of ‘distant lands, unfamiliar customs and strange laws’. Explicitly, this means if his wife commits adultery, in his culture he has the right to kill her. No need for a judge or a defence lawyer. He may have established himself successfully within Western society, but Otello’s sense of justice is rooted in his Arab culture and he thus considers himself blameless. Killing Desdemona evokes in him a sense of pride rather than guilt. So, I have to ask myself: is the scandal of the work that he kills his wife as a result of his culture’s justice system, or is it not far more scandalous that society drives him to the belief that ‘honour killing’ is the only logical solution?

Honour killing following a failure to integrate – the subject matter couldn’t be more timely.

AN Hugely timely, particularly in terms of the social pressure within male-dominated societies. For it isn’t simply Jago’s scheming which compels Otello to restore his honour in the most brutal way, but rather a masculine society in which jealousy and violence are constantly being whipped up, as we see in the drinking scene in the first act. The thought of facing this society, to which Otello longs to belong, as a shamed and cheated husband, is inconceivable.

JK As an outsider he is under added pressure and is thus desperate to fit in. Both as an army general and as a civilian he has gone to considerable lengths to be accepted into society. Yet, at the mere suggestion of his wife’s infidelity, he is relabelled as the foreign savage.

Which scenes would you say are the most outrageous or disturbing?

JK The most shocking moment for me is when Jago and Otello, after the apparent evidence of the handkerchief has come to light and before the Ambassador arrives, discuss how Otello should kill Desdemona. Like two butchers deliberating on where to make the cut in order to ensure the best-tasting meat.

AN I find it particularly disturbing that musically, Verdi, at first glance, appears to sympathise with Otello in the way that he directs the audience’s sympathy towards Otello at the end. Of course it’s tragic that somebody who has not been able to integrate into society firstly commits murder and then suicide, but I can only sympathise up to a point. Verdi wasn’t looking to trivialise the situation either. Allowing oneself to develop empathy towards a character, does not mean condoning any acts of cruelty they may have committed.

JK Well, when somebody descends from success and happiness into a downward spiral of jealousy and insanity then we, the audience, do empathise with that. That’s why I think it’s also very important how the character of Jago is constructed. If I had a typical villain next to me then the audience’s reaction would be to ask why Otello was so stupid as to trust this fellow. If, however, it’s the best buddy and a squeaky clean one at that – someone who you’d never believe would be capable of such deviance, then the story works. And that also means you sympathise with Otello.

AN Ever since Aristotle’s Poetics, sympathy has been a much-discussed theme in theatre. When emotions force rationality to take a back seat, that can even be dangerous. Why should head and heart contradict one another anyway? Do we really want the audience only to feel sympathy towards him?

JK Yes, absolutely!

AN But I do think that Otello acts so brutally, that in the scenes where he humiliates Desdemona it is possible for the audience to distance themselves from him. Just as you would distance yourself from a man who beats and abuses his wife, even when afterwards he regrets his behaviour and whines about how sorry he is – only to do the same thing again a short time later. Shakespeare and Verdi observe the mechanism of this deeply disturbed behaviour extremely well. But the audience’s understanding and sympathy shouldn’t stretch so far as to say at the end, “Oh dear, poor Otello!” The character I really feel sorry for in this scene is the victim – Desdemona.

JK The fact that the audience’s sympathy for Desdemona is often limited, is also down to the characterisation. You want to constantly shout, “Don’t you see that you’re being manipulated? And don’t you realise that the word ‘Cassio’ is the ultimate provocation for Otello? Do you really have to keep on pressing this button and then acting surprised when he finally snaps?” You can definitely draw a parallel between this and women who keep coming back to the men who have hit them.

AN Yes, I often wonder with Desdemona why she doesn’t stop going on about Cassio much sooner. It would be very wrong to suggest that she is somehow stupid or naïve and therefore it is her own fault that Otello treats her so badly. This would be a grave misunderstanding. She is a highly reflective, self-determined woman who married the outsider of her own free will. Nevertheless, I can also see a personality disorder in Desdemona. Maybe out of defiance, but definitely out of a contradictory leaning towards self-destruction, she wants to prove that Otello can become a better person through her. But this is something no love can achieve. The fact that she pursues this agenda despite noticing Otello becoming ever angrier is the chief characteristic of her personality disorder.

After „La Favorite“ Amélie Niermeyer stages a second production at Bayerische Staatsoper: „Otello“ (©Tanja Kernweiss for Max Joseph / Bayerische Staatsoper)

Is there an imbalance in the relationship between Otello and Desdemona right from the beginning?

JK In Verdi’s interpretation, yes. The so-called ‘love duet’ at the end of the first act shows this very clearly. Otello says, “You love me for my success and I you for your charitableness.” That’s how I would interpret the pietà shown here. He loves her for her kindness or, in contemporary language, for her ‘commitment to social justice’. The veneration scene in Act 2 confirms that she is loved by the people for this very same reason.

AN In Shakespeare’s play it’s a lot clearer. It’s explained that Desdemona wants to escape her father’s influence and therefore needs a strong husband. For her, Otello is the great war hero and she loves him because she senses the horrors he has experienced. She’s attracted to the disturbed and traumatised man, just as much as she is to the great hero. He, on the other hand, hopes his marriage to someone from a well-to-do background will assist his rise through the social ranks. This, too, is clearer in the play. The beautiful music written by Verdi at the end of the first act gives the impression of a deep love between the two characters, but the music and lyrics together create a certain friction which prevent the conflict from being whitewashed over.

It’s their wedding night and both characters are under enormous pressure for the relationship to work. Desdemona has even left her family for Otello. Does she have the more complex personality?

AN I find both extremely complex. The audience’s attention is drawn more to Otello in this respect, with Desdemona being easily dismissed as naïve. I think this assessment is far too narrow, though. The fact that she gets involved in politics and tells Otello that Cassio is a competent man, is testament to her strength and self-confidence, in those days especially. It’s only as the story progresses that it becomes clear: actually both characters are wired to self-destruct.

Is that the reason why they both fall victim to a plot that should be relatively easy to see through?

AN Absolutely! With Otello it’s his inability to talk to Desdemona about his insecurities and jealousy. Her manic tenacity doesn’t make this any easier for him. In her misjudged assumption that his distrust doesn’t present any serious threat, she underestimates his hurt and predisposition for brutality.

How can it be that Jago, albeit Otello’s ‘best buddy’, finds it so easy to deceive him?

JK Due to Otello’s insecurity and inexperience with multi-layered human relationships. That’s the perfect breeding ground for self-doubt, which makes him an easy target for Jago. When Otello talks to Desdemona about his suspicions for the first time, it’s already too late. The pillow he’ll use to suffocate her with is already in his hand. There’s no going back – like a torpedo once the button has been pressed.

You once said in an interview that Otello is the role you find hardest to slip out of.

JK I can normally get out of character very easily – usually by the time the applause starts. But with Otello that was very hard, which really made me think. That feral insanity, leading to murder … and then when he even boasts about killing her – that really is much different from a Don José, whose unrequited love and naked desperation drive him to stab Carmen to death. After the murder, Otello is totally convinced that he is in the right. How much greater the shock, therefore, when he discovers that she was innocent. It hits him like a hammer. And that’s why I can sympathise with him.

AN I struggle with that. When people argue that someone had a difficult childhood, has a different cultural background, etc., that can quickly sound like a trivialisation of the behaviour. We need to reflect on the circumstances, but the behaviour remains. We can’t make light of the brutality of the murder and Desdemona desperately fighting for her life.

Jago is your classic populist. He spreads fake news and rocks the boat, while ensuring that he is the one to reinstate calm. Do you see any parallels here with the current political climate?

AN Certainly. He manipulates not only Otello, but also everyone around him. He manages to turn people against one another within a very short space of time.

JK A terrifically strong role. As an actor, Jago would interest me more than the title role.

AN Except that with him there’s no clearly identifiable fall. He always seems to end up on the side of the victor. In the dialogue with Cassio about Bianca, too. One wrong word from Cassio and the entire plot would be exposed. Jago is under enormous pressure here and it’s important to show that.

JK It’s true that he’s under pressure, but it’s this playing with fire that he loves so much. It once again begs the question: Why is he doing it? Because he’s in love with Desdemona? Because he wants Otello’s position? It never really becomes clear.

AN When Cassio is promoted to captain Jago feels ignored by Otello and has to deal with this upset to his career plans. But this proves to be what triggers the plot. According to his credo at the beginning of the second act, he has a lust for evil and destruction. His ruthlessly nihilistic worldview collides with two people who still think idealistically. This is a conflict which makes the triangle between Desdemona, Otello and Jago so wonderfully exciting.

Interview by Tobias Haberl (journalist and freelance contributor to Max Joseph magazine) and Malte Krasting (dramaturg at the Bayerische Staatsoper). The conversation was recorded and edited by Thomas Voigt.

Photographs by Tanja Kernweiss for Max Joseph / Bayerische Staatsoper.

This interview was first published in German on Oct 22, 2018 in the print version of Max Joseph magazine, Bayerische Staatsoper. Translation by Ed Einsiedler.

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